Thanks to Mike McLanahan for this terrific review of “The Heart of Darkness Club” posted on Goodreads:
Over the past year or so, Gary Reilly has made us laugh through infidelity, compulsive gambling, kidnapping and shattered dreams. In The Heart of Darkness Club, he shows us the lighter side of being a murder suspect.
Denver cabbie Brendan Murphy (Murph to his friends) falls into all sorts of mischief when he ignores his Guiding Principle: Never Get Involved in the Lives of Your Passengers. Just like the proverbial feline, though, his curiosity triumphs, and while it hasn’t killed him yet, it sends readers on another lively ride when he stumbles across a charter member of The Heart of Darkness Club.
It’s a typical start to Murph’s work day as he approaches the cab stand at a downtown hotel to settle in for his usual breakfast of a Twinkie and a Coke while waiting in line hoping for a trip to the airport. Murph has spent fourteen years as a cab driver perfecting his Work/Loaf Ratio, or WLR as he calls it for short, a formula he claims is of such complex numerical subtlety that it can be understood only by mathematicians and hobos. As he’s about to take his place at the back of the rank, his radio crackles with the voice of the dispatcher broadcasting that a customer needs a cab at an address a couple of blocks away.
Quickly processing the information, he decides that four cabs ahead in line versus a trip close-by applied to the WLR equals a go. He grabs the mike to jump the bell (cabbie lingo for accepting a dispatch call) and heads for the address. Arriving a few minutes later, Murph’s spirit sinks as he sees a scruffy-looking man standing at the curb surrounded by a shabby suitcase and several cardboard boxes—-a Mover. The only thing cabbies hate more than an old lady at a grocery store with twelve bags on a snowy day is a Mover. A Mover inevitably has more boxes of stuff inside and that means plenty of dead time at each end of a short trip for loading and unloading. Murph says it’s like waiting on a bus to nowhere—except you’re the driver.
But cab driving is a game of averages, and by the day’s end, Murph climbs the fire escape to the third-floor warren he calls his crow’s nest, pulls out the copy of Finnegan’s Wake where he stores his takings (nobody would ever steal that book, he figures), and starts to count the day’s proceeds. As he sorts through the stack of bills, a crisp fiver catches his eye. He and his colleagues call them “crispies,” and they are rare in the world of cab driving. Pausing to admire the new bill, Murph notices that it has writing on it. In tight, meticulous script, it reads, “You must wake up each day in a state of total despair.” He recalls that it was given him by Mr. Trowbridge, the Mover.
Murph puts his English degree to work deconstructing the sentence but can’t decipher its significance, so he stashes it in James Joyce with the other loot and heads to the kitchen to fix his nightly hamburger patty before settling in to watch a rerun of “Gilligan’s Island.” But he can’t get the cryptic message on the bill out of his mind. He takes it out and reads it again. Did Trowbridge write it? Was it meant for Trowbridge himself, or for Murph? Did it mean anything at all? Since it seems indecipherable to him, Murph decides it should reside separately in Albert Camus’ The Stranger rather than Finnegan’s Wake since the questions in the Camus book are just as baffling as the ones he has about Trowbridge’s writing. Then he sits down with his burger and a beer to watch “Gilligan’s Island” and Mary Ann, who always makes him forget about Camus.
A few days later, Murph is driving back toward downtown after a nice trip to a suburban office park when the dispatcher calls out an address that’s right on his route. Murph takes the bell and the dispatcher replies, “Party named Trowbridge. He’ll be waiting outside.”
Murph can’t shake The Mover. Another crisp five with another cryptic message. He is now so curious that a few days later when the dispatcher calls for a cab to the address where he had dropped Trowbridge, he takes the trip hoping for some insight into the meaning of the notes. This time the trip is a bizarre journey up Lookout Mountain on the western fringe of the city that leads to more questions than answers. After a couple of hours together, Murph drops Trowbridge off near a homeless shelter downtown, hopeful that it will be their last encounter.
Trowbridge or no, the curse continues. It culminates in a wrecked cab followed by two detectives showing up at cab headquarters. They throw a blanket of suspicion over Murph regarding Trowbridge’s recent disappearance. It ultimately leads to his dismissal from Rocky Mountain Taxicab Company.
As the story unfolds, we see once again the genius of Gary Reilly. Murph’s inner dialogue is a marvel to behold. Only Murph could envision the world crumbling from the loss of his job as a cab driver. As he sinks into desperation, he even contemplates his own demise, but concludes that “If suicide is the only answer, find a different question.” Reality has punctured the shell of his hermetically-sealed world, a world “like one of those glass balls filled with water and artificial snow that billionaires drop off their deathbeds.”
I chuckled out loud less reading The Heart of Darkness Club than I did when I read Reilly’s first two “Murph” novels, but that’s all right. There are plenty of grins. Murph’s struggles with his own need to write ring true to anyone who has seriously approached the craft, and they let us laugh at ourselves reflected in Gary Reilly’s unforgiving mirror. Donald Trump wouldn’t understand Murph (or Gary, for that matter), but his relentless efforts to avoid “doing anything” provoke mirth with every turn of a page.
This is a slightly darker, more withdrawn Murph, but also a Murph who’s more accessible and vulnerable without being too serious about it. I’d be interested in knowing what Reilly would say about the character who, by all accounts, is his alter ego.
That’s not possible, though, because Gary Reilly died two years ago, before any of his novels were published. Remarkably, two of his friends, author Mark Stevens and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe, have seen to it that Gary’s work will be read. The first two Brendan Murphy books, The Asphalt Warrior and Ticket to Hollywood, made third- and second-place debuts on the Denver Post bestseller lists, respectively. The Heart of Darkness Club is the third in a series of ten of Murph’s adventures scheduled for publication roughly every six months. It’s nice to have so much to look forward to.